On 8 January last year, around 6.45pm, residents of
Delaware in the US were
startled by a sonic boom, strong enough to shake walls, rattle windows and
cause the citizens to call their local police offices, demanding
explanations. This particular speeder, however, could not only outrun any
highway-patrol cruiser in Delaware, but was beyond the reach of anyone else
in the state. Even the US Air Force, with its surveillance radars at Dover
Air Force Base, was unable to identify the miscreant.
The incident was not isolated. A rudimentary data search turns up a stream
of such incidents since the early 1990s, from Florida to Nebraska, Colorado
and California, with a similar pattern: a loud and inexplicable boom. The
phantom boomers appear to avoid densely populated areas, and the stories
usually go no further than the local paper. Only a few local papers have a
searchable website, so it is highly probable that only a minority of boom
events are reported outside the affected area.
The first conclusion from this data is that supersonic aircraft are
operating over US. Secondly, we may conclude that the USAF and other
services either cannot identify them, or that they are misleading the public
because the operations are secret.
The latter case is supported by the existence of a massive secret structure,
which can truly be described as a 'shadow military', and which
parallel with the programs that the Department of Defense (DoD) discloses in
public. It is protected by a security system of great complexity. Since
1995, two high-level commissions have reported on this system, and have
concluded that it is too complex; that it is immensely expensive, although
its exact costs defy measurement; that it includes systematic efforts to
confuse and disinform the public; and that in some cases it favors security
over military utility. The defense department, however, firmly resists any
attempt to reform this system.
As the Clinton administration begins its last year in office, it continues
to spend an unprecedented proportion of the Pentagon budget on 'black'
programs - that is, projects that are so highly classified they cannot be
identified in public. The total sums involved are relatively easy to
calculate. In the unclassified version of the Pentagon's budget books, some
budget lines are identified only by codenames. Other classified programs are
covered by vague collective descriptions, and the dollar numbers for those
line items are deleted. However, it is possible to estimate the total value
of those items by subtracting the unclassified items from the category
In Financial Year 2001 (FY01), the
USAF plans to spend US$4.96 billion on
classified research and development programs. Because white-world R&D is
being cut back, this figure is planned to reach a record 39% of total USAF
R&D. It is larger than the entire army R&D budget and two-thirds the size of
the entire navy R&D budget. The USAF's US$7.4 billion budget for classified
procurement is more than a third of the service's total budget.
Rise and rise of SAP
black projects within the DoD are known as unacknowledged
Access Programs (SAPs). The Secretary or Deputy Secretary of Defense must
approve any DoD-related SAP at the top level of the defense department. All
SAPs are projects that the DoD leadership has decided cannot be adequately
protected by normal classification measures. SAPs implement a positive
system of security control in which only selected individuals have access to
critical information. The criteria for access to an SAP vary, and the
program manager has ultimate responsibility for the access rules, but the
limits are generally much tighter than those imposed by normal need-to-know
For example, a SAP manager may insist on lie-detector testing for anyone
who has access to the program. Another key difference between SAPs and
normal programs concerns management and oversight. SAPs report to the
services, and ultimately to the DoD and Congress, by special channels which
involve a minimum number of individuals and organizations. In particular,
the number of people with access to multiple SAPs is rigorously limited.
In 1997, according to the report of a Senate commission (the Senate
Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy), there were around
150 DoD-approved SAPs. These included SAPs initiated by the department and
its branches and those initiated by other agencies (for example, the Central
Intelligence Agency [CIA] or the Department of Energy [DOE]) in which the
involved. SAPs are divided into three basic types:
Within each group
are two major classes - acknowledged and unacknowledged.
Some of the acknowledged SAPs - most of them - started as unacknowledged
programs. This is the case with the F-117 and B-2, and (on the operations
side) with army's 160th Special Operations Air Regiment (SOAR). The
existence of these programs is no longer a secret, but technical and
operational details are subject to strict, program-specific access rules.
An unacknowledged SAP - a black program - is a program which is considered
so sensitive that the fact of its existence is a 'core secret', defined in
USAF regulations as "any item, progress, strategy or element of information,
the compromise of which would result in unrecoverable failure". In other
words, revealing the existence of a black program would undermine its
The Joint Security Commission which was convened by then deputy Secretary of
Defense Bill Perry in 1993, and which reported in 1995, concluded that
had been used extensively in the 1980s "as confidence in the traditional
classification system declined". By the time the report was published,
however, the DoD had taken steps to rationalize the process by which
were created and overseen. Until 1994, each service had its own SAP office
or directorate, which had primary responsibility for its programs. The Perry
reforms downgraded these offices and assigned management of the SAPs to a
new organization at defense department level. This is based on three
directors of special programs, each of whom is responsible for one of the
three groups of SAPs - acquisition, operations and intelligence. They report
to the respective under-secretaries of defense (acquisition and technology,
policy and C4ISR).
The near-US$5 billion in black programs in the USAF research and development
budget are in the acquisition category. They are overseen within the DoD by
Maj Gen Marshal H Ward, who is director of special programs in the office of
Dr Jacques Gansler, under-secretary of defense for acquisition, technology
and logistics. Gen Ward heads an SAP Coordination Office and, along with his
counterparts in the policy and C4ISR offices, is part of an
Committee (SAPOC), chaired by the Deputy Secretary of Defense, John Hamre,
with Dr Gansler as vice-chair. The SAPOC is responsible for approving new
SAPs and changing their status; receiving reports on their status; and,
among other things, making sure that SAPs do not overlap with each other.
This was a major criticism in the 1995 report: "If an acquisition
unacknowledged," the commissioners remarked, "others working in the same
technology area may be unaware that another agency is developing a program.
The government may pay several times over for the same technology or
application developed under different special programs."
This problem was particularly prevalent in the case of stealth technology:
in the lawsuit over the A-12 Avenger II program, McDonnell Douglas and
General Dynamics charged that technology developed in other stealth programs
would have solved some of the problems that led to the project's
cancellation, but that the government did not supply it to the A-12 program.
Today, Gen Ward is the DoD-wide overseer for all stealth technology
programs. The SAPOC co-ordinates the reporting of SAPs to
Congress. Whether SAPs are acknowledged or not, they normally report to four Congressional
the House National Security Committee
the Senate Armed
the defense subcommittees of the House and Senate
Committee members and staffs are briefed in
closed, classified sessions.
However, there are several serious limitations to Congressional reporting of
SAPs. One of these is time. In the first quarter of 1999, the defense
subcommittee of the House Appropriations committee scheduled half a day of
hearings to review 150 very diverse SAPs. Another issue, related to time and
security, is that the reporting requirements for SAPs are rudimentary and
could technically be satisfied in a couple of pages.
A more substantial limitation on oversight is that some unacknowledged
are not reported to the full committees. At the Secretary of Defense's
discretion, the reporting requirements may be waived. In this case, only
eight individuals - the chair and ranking minority member of each of the
four defense committees - are notified of the decision. According to the
1997 Senate Commission, this notification may be only oral. These "waived SAPs"
are the blackest of black programs.
How many of the SAPs are unacknowledged, and how many are waived, is a
question which only a few people can answer:
A final question is whether SAP reporting rules are followed all the time.
Last summer, the House Defense Appropriations Committee complained that "the
air force acquisition community continues to ignore and violate a wide range
of appropriations practices and acquisition rules". One of the alleged
infractions was the launch of an SAP without Congressional notification. In
their day-to-day operations, SAPs enjoy a special status. An
SAP manager has
wide latitude in granting or refusing access, and because their principal
reporting channel is to the appropriate DoD-level director of special
programs. Each service maintains an SAP Central Office within the office of
the service secretary, but its role is administrative - its primary task is
to support SAP requests by individual program offices - and its director is
not a senior officer.
Within the USAF, there are signs that SAPs form a 'shadow department'
alongside the white-world programs. So far, no USAF special program director
has gone on to command USAF Materiel Command (AFMC), AFMC's
Systems Center (ASC), or their predecessor organizations. These positions
have been dominated by white-world logistics experts. On the other hand,
several of the vice-commanders in these organizations in the 1990s have
previously held SAP oversight assignments, pointing to an informal
convention under which the vice-commander, out of the public eye, deals with
highly sensitive programs. The separation of white and black programs is
further emphasized by arrangements known as 'carve-outs', which remove
classified programs from oversight by defense-wide security and
A similar parallel organization can be seen in the organization of the
USAF's flight-test activities. The USAF Flight Test Center (AFFTC) has a
main location at Edwards AFB, which supports most USAF flight-test programs.
Some classified programs are carried out at Edwards' North Base, but the
most secure and sensitive programs are the responsibility of an AFFTC
detachment based at the secret flight-test base on the edge of the dry
Lake, Nevada, and known as
Area 51. The USAF still refuses to identify the
Area 51 base, referring to it only as an 'operating location near
Lake'. It is protected from any further disclosure by an annually renewed
Presidential order (see Map).
Area 51's linkage to Edwards is a form of 'cover' - actions and statements
which are intended to conceal the existence of a black program by creating a
false impression in public. The 1995 Commission report concluded that cover
was being over-used. While conceding that cover might be required for
"potentially life-threatening, high-risk, covert operations", the report
stated baldly that "these techniques also have increasingly been used for
major acquisition and technology-based contracts to conceal the fact of the
existence of a facility or activity". The report added that "one military
service routinely uses cover mechanisms for its acquisition [SAPs], without
regard to individual threat or need".
Cover mechanisms used by the DoD have included the original identification
of the U-2 spyplane as a weather-research aircraft and the concealment of
the CIA's Lockheed A-12 spyplane behind its acknowledged cousins, the YF-12
and SR-71. Another example of cover is the way in which people who work at
Area 51 are nominally assigned to government or contractor organizations in
the Las Vegas area, and commute to the base in unmarked aircraft.
After the first wave of 'skyquake' incidents hit Southern California in
199192, and preliminary results from US Geological Service seismologists
suggested that they were caused by overflights of high-speed aircraft, the
USAF's Lincoln Laboratory analyzed the signatures from one boom event and
concluded that it was caused by navy fighter operations offshore. The
confirmed DoD use of cover makes it impossible to tell whether the
report is genuine or a cover story. The fact that cover is extensively used
to protect black programs adds weight to the theory that some white-world
projects may, in fact, be intended as cover. One example is the X-30
National Aerospaceplane (NASP) project, which was launched in 1986, cut back
in 1992 and terminated in 1994. In retrospect, the stated goal of NASP - to
develop a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle based on air-breathing scramjet
technology - seems ambitious and unrealistic.
Considered as a cover for a black-world hypersonic program, however, NASP
was ideal. NASP provided a credible reason for developing new technologies -
such as high-temperature materials and slush hydrogen - building and
improving large test facilities, and even setting up production facilities
for some materials. These activities would have been hard to conceal
directly, and would have pointed directly to a classified hypersonic program
without a cover story.
Vanishing project syndrome
Intentional cover is supported by two mechanisms, inherent in the structure
of unacknowledged SAPs, that result in the dissemination of plausible but
false data, or disinformation. Confronted with the unauthorized use of a
program name or a specific question, an 'accessed' individual may deny all
knowledge of a program - as he should, because its existence is a core
secret, and a mere "no comment" is tantamount to confirmation. The
questioner - who may not be aware that an accessed individual must respond
with a denial - will believe that denial and spread it further.
Also, people may honestly believe that there are no black programs in their
area of responsibility. For example, Gen George Sylvester, commander of
Aeronautical Systems Division in 1977, was not 'accessed' into the ASD-managed
Have Blue stealth program, even though he was nominally responsible for all USAF aircraft programs. Had he been asked whether
Have Blue existed, he
could have candidly and honestly denied it. Presented with a wall of denial,
and with no way to tell the difference between deliberate and fortuitous
disinformation, most of the media has abandoned any serious attempts to
investigate classified programs.
The process of establishing an SAP is, logically, covert. To make the
process faster and quieter, the DoD may authorize a Prospective SAP (P-SAP)
before the program is formally reviewed and funded: the P-SAP may continue
for up to six months. The P-SAP may account for the 'vanishing project
syndrome' in which a promising project simply disappears off the scope.
Possible examples include the ultra-short take-off and landing Advanced
Tactical Transport, mooted in the late 1980s; and the A/F-X long-range
stealth attack aircraft, ostensibly cancelled in 1993.
A further defense against disclosure is provided by a multi-level
nomenclature system. All DoD SAPs have an unclassified nickname, which is a
combination of two unclassified words such as Have Blue or
Even in a
program that has a standard designation, the SAP nickname may be used on
badges and secured rooms to control access to information and physical
A DoD SAP may also have a one-word classified codename. In this case, full
access to the project is controlled by the classified codename. The two-word
nickname, in this case, simply indicates that a program exists, for
budgetary, logistics or contractual purposes. The purpose, mission and
technology of the project are known only to those who have been briefed at
the codename level. Therefore, for example, Senior Citizen and Aurora could
be one and the same.
Both the 1995 and 1997 panels recommended substantial changes to the
classification system, starting with simplification and rationalization.
SAPs are not the only category of classification outside the
normal confidential/ secret/top secret system:
community classifies much of its product as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)
the Department of Energy uses Restricted Data (RD) and Critical Nuclear
Weapons Design Information (CNWDI).
The panels called for a simplified
system that would encompass SAPs, SCI and the
Both commissions also accused the DoD and other agencies of protecting too
much material within special access boundaries, and doing so in an
inconsistent manner. As the 1995 report put it:
"Perhaps the greatest
weakness in the entire system is that critical specially protected
information within the various compartments is not clearly identified."
One general told the commission that an
SAP was like
"trying to protect
every blade of grass on a baseball field. He had to have a hundred players
to guard the entire field, when only four persons to protect home plate
Different services used different standards to determine how and when to
establish SAPs, according to the 1995 commission. In one case, two services
and the DoE were running concurrent programs with the same technology. One
military service classified its program as Top Secret Special Access and
protected it with armed guards. The other military service classified its
program as Secret Special Access with little more than tight need-to-know
protection applied. The DoE classified its program as Secret, adopting
discretionary need-to-know procedures. "This problem is not uncommon", the
The commission gave up on efforts to measure the direct costs of security,
saying that "no one has a good handle on what security really costs". Direct
costs, the commission estimated, ranged from 1% to 3% of total operating
costs in an acknowledged SAP, and from 3% to 10% on a black project,
although one SAP program manager estimated security costs could be as high
as 40% of total operating costs. The commission found that there was no way
to estimate the indirect costs of security, such as the lost opportunities
to rationalize programs.
The 1995 commission also pointed out that the military utility of a
breakthrough technology is limited if commanders do not know how to use it.
A senior officer on the Joint Staff remarked that
"we still treat certain
capabilities as pearls too precious to wear - we acknowledge their value,
but because of their value, we lock them up and don't use them for fear of
The report implied that the
SAP world keeps field commanders
in the dark until the systems are ready for use and even then,
"they are put
under such tight constraints that they are unable to use [SAP products] in
any practical way".
Both the DoD's
own commission and the later Senate commission pushed for a
simpler system, with more consistent rules, and based on the principle of
risk management: that is, focusing security efforts to protect the
information that is most likely to be targeted and would be most damaging if
Since 1995, the US Government has declassified some programs. Northrop's
Tacit Blue, a prototype for a battlefield surveillance aircraft, was
unveiled in 1996, but it had made its last flight in 1985 and had not led to
an operational aircraft. The USAF publicly announced the acquisition of
MiG-29s from Moldova in 1998 - however, the previous history of the 4477th
Test and Evaluation Squadron, which has flown Soviet combat aircraft from
Area 51 since the 1970s, remains classified.
Some recent programs appear to combine an unclassified and a SAP element.
One example is the Boeing X-36 unmanned test aircraft. The X-36 itself was
disclosed in March 1996, when it was nearly complete: at the time, it was a
McDonnell Douglas project, and it clearly resembled the company's proposed
Joint Strike Fighter design. However, it was also a subscale test vehicle
for an agile, very-low-observables combat aircraft, incorporating a
still-classified thrust vectoring system with an externally fixed nozzle.
The nozzle itself remains classified, and it is likely that a full-scale
radar cross-section model of the design was also built under a secret
Another hybrid is the USAF's Space Maneuver Vehicle (SMV), originated by
Rockwell but a Boeing project. This appears to have been black before 1997,
with the designation X-40. (The USAF has reserved the designations X-39 to
X-42 for a variety of programs.) A subscale, low-speed test vehicle was
revealed in that year; it was described as the Miniature Spaceplane
Technology (MiST) demonstrator and was designated X-40A, a suffix that
usually indicates the second derivative of an X-aircraft. Late last year,
Boeing was selected to develop a larger SMV test vehicle under
Future-X program - this effort is unclassified, and is designated X-37. The
question is whether the USAF is still quietly working on a full-scale X-40
to explore some of the SMV's military applications, including space control
Another indication of greater openness is the fact that the three
reconnaissance unmanned air vehicle (UAV) programs launched in 199495 - the
Predator, DarkStar and Global Hawk - were unclassified. The General Atomics
Gnat 750, which preceded the Predator, was placed in service under a CIA
black program, and the DarkStar and Global Hawk, between them, were designed
as a substitute for a very large, long-endurance stealth reconnaissance UAV
developed by Boeing and Lockheed and cancelled in 1993. However, the budget
numbers indicate that unacknowledged SAPs are very much alive. Neither has
the DoD taken any drastic steps to rationalize the security system. Recent
revelations over the loss of data from DoE laboratories have placed both
Congress and Administration in a defensive posture, and early reform is
A telling indication of the state of declassification, however, was the
release in 1998 of the CIA's official history of the U-2 program. It is
censored to remove any mention of the location of the program. However, an
earlier account of the U-2 program, prepared with the full co-operation of
Lockheed and screened for security, includes a photo of the Area 51 ramp
area. It shows hangars that can still be located on overhead and
ground-to-ground shots of the base, together with terrain that can be
correlated with ridgelines in the
Groom Lake area.
However, the DoD has opposed legislation - along the lines of the 1997
Senate report - that would simplify the current system and create an
independent authority to govern declassification.
In the summer of 1999, Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre said that the
was opposed to the entire concept of writing all security policies into law,
because it would make the system less flexible. The DoD is also against the
idea of a "balance of public interest" test for classification. Another
major concern was that an independent oversight office would be cognizant of
Hans Mark, director for defense research and engineering, defended the
current level of SAP activity in his confirmation hearing in June 1998.
SAPs, Mark said, "enable the DoD to accomplish very sensitive, high payoff
acquisition, intelligence, and operational activities". Without them, he
said, "many of these activities would not be possible, and the effectiveness
of the operational forces would be reduced as a result. I am convinced that
special access controls are critical to the success of such highly sensitive
Not only have
SAPs held their ground, but their philosophy has also spread
to other programs and agencies. NASA's 'faster, better, cheaper' approach to
technology demonstration and space exploration has been brought to the
agency by its administrator, Dan Goldin, who was previously involved with
SAPs with TRW. The Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) programs
conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are also
based on similar principles to SAPs. In some cases - such as Frontier
Systems' A160 long-endurance helicopter demonstrator - DARPA contractors are
providing effective security outside a formal SAP framework.
SAPs are visible in the prosperity of special-program organizations within
industry. Boeing's Phantom Works, founded in 1992 on the basis of existing
black program work at McDonnell Douglas but with an added emphasis on
low-cost prototyping, has been expanded by the new Boeing to include
facilities and people at Palmdale and Seattle. While the headquarters of the
Phantom Works is being moved to Seattle, this move directly affects only a
small staff, and the St Louis operation still appears to be active. Its main
white-world program has been the construction of the forward fuselages of
the X-32 prototypes, but this only occupies one of many secure hangar bays.
The X-32 prototypes are being assembled at Palmdale, in a hangar divided by
a high curtain. Another test vehicle is being assembled in the same hangar,
behind a high curtain, and background music plays constantly to drown out
any telltale conversations.
In the early 1980s, Boeing expanded its military-aircraft activities and
built large new facilities - including an engineering building and indoor RCS range at Boeing Field - which were specifically designed to support
SAPs, with numerous, physically separate 'vaults' to isolate secure programs
from each other. Boeing's black-projects team at Seattle is considered to be
one of the best in the industry.
Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works has changed in character since the 1970s. The
original Advanced Development Projects (ADP) unit was built around a core
group of engineering leaders, who would tap people and resources from the
'white-world' Lockheed-California company when they were needed. In the
1980s, the Skunk Works grew in size and importance, while
Lockheed-California diminished. Today, the Skunk Works is a large,
stand-alone organization with 4,000-plus employees. As far as the world
knows, its output in the past 10 years comprises two YF-22 prototypes, parts
of two DarkStar prototypes, the X-33 RLV and the two X-35 JSF demonstrators.
In mid-1999, Lockheed Martin disclosed that a new advanced-technology
organization had been set up within the Skunk Works, headed by veteran
engineer Ed Glasgow, to explore the potential or revolutionary technologies.
In the unclassified realm, these include a hybrid heavy-lift vehicle
combining lighter-than-air and aerodynamic principles, and a
supersonic-cruise vehicle with design features that virtually eliminate a
sonic boom signature on the ground.
The Skunk Works' renown has overshadowed another Lockheed Martin
organization with a long-standing connection with SAPs, located within
Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems (LMTAS) at Fort Worth. This group
has existed since the late 1950s, when General Dynamics sought
special-programs work to keep its engineering workforce together between
major projects. Notable projects include Kingfish, which was the
ramjet-powered rival to Lockheed's A-12 Blackbird and continued in
development into the early 1960s, and the RB-57F, a drastically modified
Canberra designed for high-altitude reconnaissance missions.
More recently, the group worked on early stealth concepts - including the
design which led to the Navy's A-12 Avenger II attack aircraft - and has
modified transport-type aircraft for sensitive reconnaissance missions under
the USAF's Big Safari program.
Northrop Grumman's major involvement in manned-aircraft SAPs may be winding
down as the Pico Rivera plant - which housed the B-2 program - is closed
down and its workforce disperses. However, the company's acquisitions in
1999, including Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical (TRA) and California Microwave,
indicate that it will remain a force in UAV programs, including SAPs. TRA
has a long association with SAPs and SAP-like programs, dating back to
Vietnam-era reconnaissance UAVs and the AQM-91 Firefly high-altitude,
low-observable reconnaissance drone tested in the early 1970s.
Raytheon has acquired important SAP operations through acquisitions. The
former Hughes missile operation was presumably involved in the classified
air-breathing AMRAAM variant that was apparently used in Operation 'Desert
Storm', and in subsequent extended-range air-to-air missile programs. Texas
Instruments developed the ASQ-213 HARM Targeting System pod under a black
program between 1991 and 1993, when it was unveiled. (HTS was a classic
example of a 'vanishing' program: briefly mentioned in early 1990, it turned
black shortly afterwards.) The former E-Systems has been heavily involved in
intelligence programs since its formation.
One likely strategic goal of current
SAPs is the pursuit of what one senior
engineer calls "the next stealth" - breakthrough technologies that provide a
significant military advantage. Examples could include high-speed technology
- permitting reconnaissance and strike aircraft to cruise above M45 - and
visual and acoustic stealth measures, which could re-open the airspace below
15,000ft (4,600m) to manned and unmanned aircraft.
The existence of high-supersonic aircraft projects has been inferred from
sighting reports, the repeated, unexplained sonic booms over the US and
elsewhere, the abrupt retirement of the SR-71 and from the focus of
white-world programs, such as NASP and follow-on research efforts such as
the USAF's HyTech program. The latter have consistently been aimed at
gathering data on speeds in the true hypersonic realm - well above M6, where
subsonic-combustion ramjets give way to supersonic-combustion ramjets
(scramjets) - implying that speeds from M3 to M6 present no major unsolved
One researcher in high-speed technology has confirmed to IDR that he has
seen what appear to be photographs of an unidentified high-speed aircraft,
obtained by a US publication. In a recent sighting at Area 51, a group of
observers claim to have seen a highly blended slender-delta aircraft which
closely resembles the aircraft seen over the North Sea in August 1999.
Visual stealth measures were part of the original Have Blue program, and one
prototype was to have been fitted with a counter-illumination system to
reduce its detectability against a brightly lit sky. However, both
prototypes were lost before either could be fitted with such a system. More
recent work has focused on electrochromic materials - flat panels which can
change color or tint when subjected to an electrical charge - and Lockheed
Martin Skunk Works is known to have co-operated with the DoE's Lawrence
Berkeley Laboratory on such materials.
Yet, the plain fact is that the public and the defense community at large
have little idea of what has been achieved in unacknowledged SAPs since the
early 1980s. Tacit Blue, the most recently declassified product of the
black-aircraft world, actually traces its roots to the Ford Administration.
If nothing else, the dearth of hard information since that time, shows that
the SAP system - expensive, unwieldy and sometimes irrational as it might
seem - keeps its secrets well. Whatever rattled the dinner tables of
Delaware a year ago may remain in the shadows for many years.
'The government may pay several times over for the same technology or
application developed under different special programs'
'Presented with a wall of denial, most of the media has abandoned any
serious attempts to investigate classified programs'
In the late 1980s, this large hangar with an uninterrupted opening around
60m wide and over 20m high was constructed at
Area 51, the USAF's secret
flight test center at Groom Lake, Nevada. The
project that it was built to house remains secret.
(click right image to enlarge)
The threat of armed force is used routinely to protect classified programs.
Area 51 is defended by a force of armed security personnel who
work for a civilian contractor and by helicopter patrols, and the eastern
border of the site is ringed with electronic sensors.
(click left image to enlarge)
Tacit Blue, an experimental low-observable aircraft designed to
carry a Hughes battlefield-surveillance radar, was tested at
Area 51 in
1982-85 and unveiled in 1996. Although the program originated under the
Administration, it is the most recent classified manned-aircraft
program to have been disclosed.
Boeing X-36 unmanned prototype started as a Special Access
Program and was partly declassified in 1996 so that McDonnell Douglas could
use its technology in its Joint Strike Fighter proposal. Some aspects of its
design including its use of stealth technology and its thrust-vectoring
exhaust remain classified.
Shoulder patch from the
4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES), the
covert USAF unit which has tested numerous Soviet aircraft at
Boeing's X-37 spaceplane, being developed for
NASA, was originally designed
by Rockwell and supported by the USAF as a
special access program. The designation X-40 applies to its military
The now-cancelled Lockheed Martin/ Boeing
DarkStar may have been a
scaled-down version of a large, long-endurance stealth reconnaissance UAV
which was cancelled in 1993 after at least $1 billion had been spent on its
YF-12C reconnaissance aircraft was disclosed
before its first flight, but its testing and operation was used to mask the
existence of its covert precursor, the CIA's A-12. The latter was not
disclosed until 1982, 14 years after its retirement.
The Soviet Union was presumably aware of the location of
Area 51 by the
early 1960s, when its first reconnaissance satellites began to survey the
United States. However, the Pentagon continues to avoid acknowledging its
(click right image to